Gaslighting the silent killer of workplace cultures
The fabric of a workplace culture is where people can leverage their strengths, learn and grow together. Gaslighting eats away at the fabric; it disables connection, weakens confidence, and creates Toxic Fear that kills the ability to be better together.
Definition of Gaslighting in the workplace
Dr. Shona Walters Ph.D. has a great definition: “Gaslighting at work is when a fellow team member or boss (the Gaslighter) manipulates you to the point that you question your sanity, memory, or perceptions. The Gaslighter can do this by denying past events, downplaying your emotions, or retelling events so that you take the blame.”
Impact of Gaslighting on individuals
As a Performance and Transformation coach working in an organization to support the creation of Hive (better together) cultures, I have found gaslighting happens to so many and also becomes the norm in people who force performance outcomes, play political games, and build silos of power. Gaslighting impacts the mental health of people, and the culture becomes a toxic space where you might be the next victim if you don’t fit in. One of the reasons I ventured into this space is because as an executive I experienced Gaslighting a few times in my career, and the final time it created adrenal fatigue and took me years to recover. I trusted less and felt overwhelmed; my ability to bring my creativity and innovation disappeared. I became isolated, alone, and disconnected from the team I needed to be part of. You see, my Gaslighting started with a female peer whom I realize now felt threatened by me as the only other female on the executive team. Instead of combining our talents and working together, I was slowly being isolated, made to feel I was going crazy, set up to fail, and shamed openly for things out of my control. Gaslighting does create isolation and mental stress, which then become physical and impact our overall health. I am thrilled to find insights into isolation and its impact in Dr. Vivek Murthy’s new book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Through my experiences of Gaslighting in both my personal and professional life, I realized I was experiencing acute loneliness. In a recent study led by the world economic forum (2019), they found that over 40% of their sample group suffered from Social loneliness, Emotional loneliness, and a large percentage of a combination of both.
What could the impacts be?
• Impact on the ability to contribute or to display confidence
• Negative Psychological health
• Developing auto-immune health conditions
Impact of Gaslighting on teams and organizations
Toxic workplaces are the impact. A place of competition, being better than the next person. A place of power, silos, and individual success. Gaslighting is the fire that starts under the foundation of the workplace culture and slowly steals people’s ability to truly team, care for each other, and work together through challenges. It fragments connection, where people are open, willing to be seen and heard, and have the courage to use their voice without fear and judgment.
So, we see dysfunctional teaming, egos that are out of control, poor performance, misunderstanding, manipulation, fear, and judgment. The ability to have honest, peaceful discussions on perspectives and to lean into positive conflict can’t happen. The organization’s ability to thrive, build capacity and create a long-term future is limited unless a change can occur, a shift in how people show up, a willingness to stop Gaslighting, and build workplaces where people matter!
Are you being Gaslighted?
I didn’t realize I was being Gaslighted; I simply felt I was going crazy slowly, that I was being undermined and that nothing I could do seemed to make things better with the person doing this to me. I think it’s crucial to recognize if you are being Gaslighted and then what you can do about it. Are you:
• Questioning your sense of reality
• Being blamed, accused or shamed for mistakes or actions that you know you have not made
• Being told that things were not said to you that was
• Being left out of meaningful discussions, meetings, or even events
• Being belittled in private or in a group
• Being gossiped about, with your credibility being challenged
• Being “set up to fail” and you recognize it is deliberate, yet you can’t seem to prove it or speak to the person to shift things
• Being denied the opportunity to address, work through or realign situations
• Being blatantly ignored when you speak to someone (They look at their screen or out the window)
These are just a few of the very obvious Gaslighting that can happen, and if they are happening to you, it’s time to realize it and recognize that you need to change things to be mentally healthy and to heal from workplace trauma.
What to do if you are Gaslighted at work?
You need to choose yourself! If you are being gaslighted at work, you are in a place of mental fatigue, and you have possibly exchanged your worthiness (good enough measure) with others to fix the situation, yet it has not worked. The shame and judgment have caused fear behaviors that will keep you in a cycle if you don’t speak to someone and get support.
If you have a good HR team, why not schedule time with them and see if they can support you? They will often try and help and might not get very far unless you have documented events. My question is can they make it better? They can definitely try, yet sometimes their hands might be tied unless you have evidence.
Remember who you are! It’s so easy to start questioning your reality, sanity, and worthiness, and before you know it, you are stuck in imposter syndrome, a place where you are your own bully and Gaslighter. Don’t confront the Gaslighter; they know how to manipulate you; instead, work on understanding what you need to deliver success and document your process. Set boundaries with the Gaslighter. Speak to your workplace Employee Assistance Support or a therapist.
Finally, I would ask myself if you need to work here or if you might be better off working elsewhere; I will stress that I do need to work through the trauma I have experienced else my fear behaviors could recreate the cycle in a new role or organization.
Are you the Gaslighter?
If you are reading this and you have become the Gaslighter, I don’t want you to feel ashamed. You have the opportunity to heal from your trauma and fear behaviors that have created the behavior. In fact, you are in a place where you have either been taught how to get people to deliver outcomes for you (through control) or how you deal with your own personal discomfort and now you might realize the dire impact and trauma you are creating for others.
Can you change it? Yes, of course, you can evolve; you can choose to understand why you are showing up this way, recognize that it is not the best of you, and you can choose yourself, your healing, and your freedom from fear of others, fear of not being enough, fear of your own trauma reliving itself. If you decide to shift, you choose to be free and be better together, and you are choosing a life filled with the joy of genuine relationships and connection.
Weaving a Culture of Better Together where Gaslighting is not ok
I want to finish this article with a quote that Brené Brown
has captured and one that I use in our work every day. “Connection is the energy that exists between us when we feel seen, heard, and valued. Where we can see, hear, and value someone else, where we can give and receive without judgment, once we can we get sustenance and joy, and performance and partnership from the relationship” – I have added a few elements to this quote as I have seen It come to life in our work.
When we accept Gaslighting and make excuses for behaviors that break others down, we are allowing our culture to be toxic and dysfunctional. The answer is to decide we want to be better together; we will work on ourselves first to be mentally fit, kind, generous, and our best selves. We are going to encourage our people to do the same. We will start being honest, not hiding from challenges, and see them as opportunities. We will seek perspectives, connect from a place of compassion, and be brave to step into the uncomfortable place of understanding without needing to belittle shame or Gaslight others. We can do this, I have seen the change in many organizations, and it’s a beautiful place to be. We believe organizations are like a BEEHIVE, A place where we are better together!
ABOUT CHRISTINA FOXWELL:
Christina Foxwell is the Founder of Ignite Purpose, where over the last decade, she has supported leaders in their navigation of teams and organizational culture toward flow and purpose. That has led her toward her passion of helping them in their life-changing journeys to follow their passion and transform their lives. Christina is, most importantly, a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, and friend. She has learned to love herself and thereby love those in her life more deeply.
Written by Christina Foxwell – Performance and Transformation Coach